Goodbye, 'Quality Circles'
© Steve Tormey
This article was prepared by U.E. International Rep. Stephen Tormey, and draws heavily on the book by Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept. A Labor Notes Book, South End Press, 1985. -- This article originally appeared in the UE NEWS, 4/20/90; its message continues to remains relevant today's workplace. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
The 1980s saw massive corporate restructuring. Plants were closed or sold, jobs ruthlessly eliminated. As the corporate drive to maximize profits shifted into a higher gear, workers were hit with concessions, automation and speed-up, the use of temporary workers and increased subcontracting.
Accompanying this assault was a new attempt to influence workers' thinking: quality circles. Organized in small groups of bosses and workers, quality circles were set up to convince workers they shared the same objectives as management -- while at the same time drawing out of workers ideas often used to speed-up the pace of work and eliminate jobs.
Although useful, quality circles were not a complete success for the companies.
First, there was the problem of worker resistance. UE seemed alone when it adopted an uncompromising stand against "employee participation" at its 1981 convention. But within a few years, many unions which had initially endorsed the idea were backing away. As UE had warned, quality circles were being used to undermine existing union structures and increase employer control over the workplace, often at the expense of jobs.
For employers, quality circles had other kinds of limitations. Being "off-line," the groups' effectiveness tended not to last long. Often the circles would dry up after a while, once the best of employees' ideas were skimmed. Set up as "problem-solving groups," quality circles also tended to be more talk than action, lacking the power to implement ideas or organize work more efficiently.
By not going far enough in "employee involvement," quality circles failed to fully unlock workers' intimate knowledge of their jobs and the intricacies of the production process for management's benefit. Workers still knew too much about their jobs -- and that knowledge was denied to their bosses.
In consolidating the gains of the 1980s, big business saw a need to build on, but go beyond, the quality circle movement. General Electric's Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch posed the problem this way: "A company can boost productivity by restructuring and downsizing, but it cannot sustain high production growth without totally involving the individual who is closest to the work and therefore knows it better than those who manage it." (emphasis added).
The, solution adopted by GE and other major corporations: The Team Concept. Under this scheme, employee involvement is extended to the shop floor on a continuing basis, in ways that use worker experience and skill to reorganize the production process to improve productivity.
Work teams typically involve all employees working in a given area. Generally led by a group leader or facilitator, the team is given clear responsiblity for a portion of the product, enough so that the team can be held accountable and its performance can be measured.
Teams typically receive training in communication and interpersonal skills to encourage the transmission of ideas among themselves and ultimately to the company. Training in administrative tasks paves the way for team :members to take over jobs previously performed by management, such as responsibility for time cards and overtime, performance evaluations, and even hiring and firing in some cases.
Finally, there is often training in statistical process control as a way of keeping production within the bounds of specifications and requirements of management. Team members learn to perform their own quality control and. inspection functions while also learning the jobs of other team members for maximum flexibility.
Work teams generally mean a drastic reduction in the number of job classifications, and the interchangeability of team members in the assigned tasks. Much less importance -- if any -- is given to seniority in work assignments and transfers.
Most important protections of working conditions and union shop floor power are subordinated to the goals of the team - and therefore, the company.
Not surprisingly, the experts say work teams require "new attitudes and definitions of the union-management relationship." Bob Harper, a former GE manager, and wife Ann, whose book Succeeding as a Self-Directed Work Team is used in GE seminars, state simply that the teams "cannot take place in an adversarial climate." In other words, unions must cease to challenge management or aggressively fight for their members.
Given the promise of bigger profits, greater productivity and weakened unions, self-managing teams "appear to be the wave of the future," as Business Week reported last year. Deeply rooted in the auto industry, work teams are also spreading rapidly to other manufacturing and service industries. Among the companies using work teams are General Electric, Honeywell, General Motors, Ford, Caterpillar, Boeing, Champion International and Westinghouse.
By the end of last year, GE had hoped to have 35 percent of all employees in teams. The reason had little to do with worker "empowerment." Explained Robert Erskine, GE manager of production resources: "We're trying to radically reduce the work cycle needed to produce a product. When you combine automation with the new systems and work teams, you get a 40 to 50 percent improvement in productivity."
Team concept promoters are quick to suggest a number of benefits for workers: More training, knowledge, job security and job satisfaction. Workers are told they will actually be empowered to make decisions traditionally reserved for management. The result will be a more humane workplace, to the benefit of all. Workers will be able to influence the organization of work and no longer regimented, simply following orders mindlessly.
But not even team concept advocates contend that the agenda is anything but management's. The key questions of how much work is reasonable, product design, the use of technology, or where and how to invest remains firmly under management's control.
Management is interested in workers' ideas, but as a way of finally ending workers' mastery of their jobs. Experience in auto plants suggests that teams, and especially team leaders, are carefully trained and rewarded to think like bosses, document all ideas and methods and pass them on to the real bosses in management. This begins the process of charting and standardizing jobs. As time goes on, there is less and less chance for workers to do anything more than speed themselves up.
In the plant operated by the GM-Toyota joint venture, NUMMI, jobs are so rigidly standardized that permission must be secured from the team leader to deviate in any way from the standard methods described.
Breaking jobs down to their smallest components paves the way for further automation and a rebalancing of the remaining work. In the team system, any idle time, such as waiting for a machine to make a cut, or awaiting supplies from the material handler, is considered "waste." Under the "continuous improvement" or "Kaizen" method adopted by some companies, the work team must constantly strive to eliminate such waste. The fact that the team members are familiar with all of the jobs in their group facilitates this process.
There's no worker democracy -- and no job security, either -- in the statistical process control pioneered by work team advocate W. Edwards Deming. Once management has gathered enough information about a job, it controls exactly how a job should be run. The operator loses control of deciding when and how to make adjustments, which are instead made by computer. In effect, operators are taken out of the adjustment loop in the ongoing effort to reduce the randomness or variability in a job.
Not only is this system more regimented than traditional methods, it makes it easier for management to further automate the work or to move the work to other locations should they choose to do so.
Another myth about the team concept is that workers acquire more skill by doing jobs outside their traditional classifications -- although the extensive and costly training required to achieve a truly multiskilled workforce would prevent most companies from making good on such a promise. Instead, the tendency is to break jobs down to contain as little skill as possible.
As Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter note in their book Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, "The less training and skill required, the greater the interchangeability without increasing costs. Multiskilling every worker means deskilling every job."
Not surprisingly, many highly-skilled jobs such as skilled maintenance and toolroom classifications are heavily subcontracted in team concept plants, since these jobs do not readily lend themselves to deskilling. Other highly-skilled work frequently is left to management personnel or, at times, the team leader. Of course, indirect labor such as sweepers and material handlers also tend to be eliminated or subcontracted as well.
Job rotation is billed by promoters of the team concept as a way of humanizing the workplace; different tasks break monotony and increase jab satisfaction. In reality, in many team concept plants there is relatively little job rotation since management knows it needs specialists who have learned their jobs over time. Management is more interested in the right to use workers interchangeably without regard to classification. This not only cuts down on the number of relief workers, but allows the work of the team to be more easily rebalanced, once a job has been eliminated or "waste" reduced.
Some plants do practice frequent job rotation, but the benefits to workers are far from clear. While some workers prefer this system, others find rotating just as boring and requiring more concentration because of unfamiliarity with the job. GE's Salisbury, N.C. plant experienced a 14 percent turnover rate for two years after conversion to team-based production; a number of workers were sick of constant movement from job-to-job.
Learning every job within the team makes it more difficult for a worker to use seniority to get a preferred job -- and provides the company with a convenient excuse to deny bids. The tendency is for the team to be "walled off." As management consultant Harper puts it, "the reward system must encourage SDWTs (self-directed work teams) to learn new skills, take risks, solve problems and give up traditional forms of security such as seniority." (emphasis added)
Wages and benefits fare no better under work teams and "jointness" than working conditions.
"Gainsharing," "pay for knowledge" and "pay for performance" systems are common in team concept plants. In pay for knowledge, workers receive increases based on how many jobs they learn, or, in some cases, how many courses they have completed in subjects management wants them to learn.
Pay for performance and gainsharing involve basing pay on company profits or other measures of company performance. The result is that teams discipline themselves, applying peer pressure to team members who, don't produce enough, or whose absence affects team performance. Unions become instruments of discipline for the company, instead of defenders of workers' interests. Companies then have the opportunity to whipsaw teams and plants against each other on the basis of who has the highest productivity.
Traditional piecework and incentive systems are also a form of pay for performance. But management never succeeded in appropriating the workers' knowledge of the job under piecework. A smart pieceworker could beat the system by coming up with shortcuts and techniques, secrets not passed on to management.
Unions negotiated protective contract language limiting management's ability to retime jobs. Generally, retiming is limited to changes in method, and there are certain other protections against management setting overly tight standards. The systems are complex and burdensome to administer.
As a result, even as corporations are touting pay for performance. they have been moving away from more traditional incentive. The difference is that through the use of team leaders and standardization of work, the knowledge and techniques of workers on the job is passed on to management and becomes their property. Workers have no protection from method changes and speed-up that takes place in the quest for "continuous improvement."
The team concept is directly in conflict with worker solidarity, national bargaining and a company-wide structure of wages and benefits.
In addition, what starts as a voluntary program generally does not remain so for long. Tom Peters, author of Strategies for Continuous Improvement in the Workplace, has this advice for management:
"Mandate involvement. Participation in the effort must eventually become nonvoluntary . . . everyone ultimately must hop on board, and those who dig in their heels too deeply, and for too long, must see their continuing reluctance reflected in their performance evaluations."
Corporate America, in its urgent quest to "empower" and "liberate" workers, is taking no chances on those who prefer other ideas about freedom.
The team concept has some real appeal for workers. By emphasizing such themes as training, pride in work, less supervision, democratization and job security, the idea of jointness frequently strikes a responsive chord among workers. But is it the best way to achieve improved quality of working life?
Unions must address the issue of working life -- but not by signing onto a corporate agenda in fundamental conflict with the interests of their members. That agenda has nothing to do with "liberation," and everything to do with enforcing management control over workers' every thought and action.